The Institute Times

The 1967 Referendum

Faith Bandler with daughter Lilon Bandler and Rev George Garnsey demonstrating in 1967 for the referendum.
Faith Bandler with daughter Lilon Bandler and Rev George Garnsey demonstrating in 1967 for the referendum

The Australian Constitution is the legal framework or a set of rules for how Australia is governed. Any changes to the Constitution can be changed by referendum according to section 128 of the Constitution. Any proposed changes must first be approved as a bill by the national Parliament and then the Governor-General of Australia issues a writ for a referendum to occur.

A referendum is a national ballot on a question to change the Constitution and On 27 May 1967, a referendum was held where the Australian people were asked to determine whether two references in the Australian Constitution, which discriminated against Aboriginal people, should be removed.

This referendum has gone down in history as having the highest YES vote ever recorded, in which more than 90% of Australians voted to give the Commonwealth power to make laws specific to Indigenous people, and to allow for Indigenous people to be counted in the census.

Who better to tell the story of the 1967 Referendum then some of the people who were integral to the success of the campaign, Faith Bandler, Jack and Jean Horner and John Moriarity.

In 1997, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Referendum, these four great Australians were interviewed. Their interviews featured in the following article published in the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation edition of Walking Together, May 1997.

Dr Faith Bandler AM DLIT

The road to a yes vote in the 1967 Constitutional Referendum was a long and difficult one, spanning over 10 years. Dr Faith Bandler, one of the founding members of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), remembers the time as one of hardship, with the bulk of the burden carried by a number of non-Indigenous people "of a very special metal".

"The whole idea, of course, was Jessie Street's—that there should be a federal body and that there should be changes to the Federal Constitution so that the Federal Government could have the power to override the states. Prior to the referendum, the Aboriginal people came under six different laws, each state had its own laws and they didn't have the resources to handle housing or education or employment or anything like that."

One of Dr Bandler's strongest memories of the time, was when the date for the referendum was set and FCAATSI quickly set about the task of its now highly successful referendum campaign. Thirty years ago, campaigners celebrated the goodwill of the nation and the success of the 1967 Referendum. On Tuesday 27 May, 1997, the Australian Reconciliation Convention, with people across the nation, will celebrate the 30th anniversary of this significant event.

John Moriarty

John Moriarty joined the movement for indigenous rights in Adelaide in 1961. Having been taken away from his community at Borroloola in the Northern Territory as a five-year-old, he was now a young university student, looking to fight for something he believed in.

He found it through the work of FCAATSI, an organisation to which he was affiliated in his role as State Secretary of the Aboriginal Progress Association.

"Both of these groups were taking up very hard issues, like equal rights for Aboriginal people," said Moriarty. "No-one had particular axes to grind, nobody was paid to take part. It was simply an important cause that brought together people of like mind."

One of the most significant aspects of the struggle towards the 1967 Referendum, as Moriarty sees it, was the contact it promoted between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.

"Not many people–black or white–were prepared to fight for Aborigines in those days," he said, "it was very uplifting to meet people from different backgrounds who were."

Moriarty's most vivid memories of the years leading up to the Referendum are of his annual journeys to Canberra in his little VW, to participate in meetings of the Federal Council.

Moriarty still views the 1967 Referendum as a watershed in the fight for indigenous rights. As for the impact the struggle had on his own life, Moriarty says that it was a natural progression for him to move from FCAATSI into the newly created Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra in 1973.

"Thirty years down the track, we are still grappling with many of the same questions," he says. "The concept of reconciliation is a good one, but we have a long way to go."

Jack and Jean Horner

Thirty years down the track, Jack and Jean Horner's memories of the campaign towards the 1967 Referendum are very much alive. Now aged in their 70s the Horners not only remember the names of their fellow activists, but the colour of their hair and the way they spoke.

"The referendum campaign has to go down in history as one of the most successful in Australia's history," said Jean. "There was a huge job to be done in breaking down discrimination, which was everywhere, and what we were on about was making sure that more and more people got to know the facts."

The Horners were among the earliest members of the FCAATSI. They'd first become involved with the Australian Aboriginal Federation after spotting a poster about a meeting at the Sydney Town Hall.

The Horners were amazed to learn about legislation around the country that discriminated against Indigenous people. In Western Australia, for example, Aborigines had to seek permission from a protection officer before marrying or taking a job.

The Horners were active members of FCAATSI's referendum campaign, organising conferences, writing letters, educating the media and taking on a multitude of speaking engagements across the country.

"We didn't end up with much time to do anything else," said Jean. "The campaign took over our lives. We had no office and the papers were spread from one end of the house to the other. One day I realised that the only room we weren't using for the campaign was the bathroom."

As the 30th anniversary of the successful referendum draws close, the Horners shy at the notion that their role in the campaign has afforded them the status of prominent Australians. What they do feel is a sense of frustration that much of the ignorance they faced in the 50s and 60s is still prevalent in Australia today.

"I wonder what we can do to help Australians understand."